History of the Church

Heritage Open Day Saturday 7 September

Learn more about the history of St Mary’s on our Heritage Open Day on 7 September 2024.

There will be tours, talks and plenty of tea. More details will be published nearer the time. For up-to-date information, see our Facebook Page.

Our open day is part of England’s festival of history, Heritage Open Days and Dorset Architectural Heritage Week.

The history of St Mary’s in Weymouth

St Mary’s Church in Weymouth is a Georgian building. It opened in 1817, the year Jane Austen died, during the nine-year period known as the Regency.

St Mary’s has a particular connection with the Regency. King George III, whose illness and incapacity led to the Regency, often worshipped in the old St Mary’s church on this site.

His grand-daughter, Princess Charlotte, gave money towards the building of this church. You’ll find her name heading the list of benefactors, in the entrance.

The first church on this site

People have worshipped and prayed here for well over 700 years. A small chapel was put up about 1299 and the town’s fishermen would come here to pray before going out to sea.

In those days there was no bridge across the harbour. A small town stood on each side – this side was Melcombe Regis, the other was Weymouth. The early chapel served the people of Melcombe.

The chapel wasn’t the parish church. That was at Radipole, two miles north of here. Back then, that church was dedicated to St Mary. We don’t know what name was given to the chapel in Melcombe.

The second church in Melcombe Regis

As Melcombe grew, it was increasingly inconvenient having a parish church two miles away. Not least because people feared French raiding parties would attack their homes while they were at church.

The early chapel was replaced by a new building in 1606, and land around it was fenced off as a churchyard. This became the parish church for the town.

In the 1720s Sir James Thornhill, a Melcombe boy who became court painter to King George I, later a Member of Parliament for the town. He presented his painting of the Last Supper to the church. You can still see it today, 300 years later.

Melcombe Regis continued to expand. By the time of King George’s visits, between 1789 and 1805, the building was considered too small.
It was also falling into disrepair. In June 1815 part of the ceiling fell in at the start of a service. Fortunately no one was hurt.

The Regency church of St Mary’s

In 1815 an Act of Parliament allowed for the rebuilding of Melcombe Regis parish church. The town advertised to architects and builders for plans to build a church to hold at least 1,900 people.
Two years later, in 1817, the new church of St Mary’s was consecrated. It has been in regular use ever since.

The Regency church was a huge space with seating on ground level and a balcony. Originally it was fitted with box pews, many of which were owned or rented by wealthier people. There was free seating available to the poor. (Cover picture shows the box pews).

While George III never visited the new church, and was hidden away in Windsor Castle because of his state of mind, he continued to own a pew at the east end of the south gallery. This area was later converted into an upstairs vestry.

In the 1840s up to 1,400 people attended Sunday services and the building was again considered too small.

Changes to the Regency church

In 1922 a major renovation saw the churchyard being levelled, with many headstones becoming part of the floor inside the building. The box pews were replaced by those you see today and electric lighting was installed.

In 1973 the north and south aisles were converted into separate rooms and the entrance foyer was created by shortening the nave (the main body of the church). At the same time a kitchen and toilets were added.

Today there are plans to make one entrance wheelchair accessible.

Features to look for in St Mary’s

The Last Supper by Sir James Thornhill – a 300-year-old painting by one of Britain’s leading artists, who also painted the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Coats of arms – the 13 shields represent people and places associated with the church. See separate leaflet for details.

War memorials – remembering those who died in the First and Second World Wars, and subsequent conflicts. The Simeon Room window remembers men from the parish who died in the First World War. The memorial and Book of Remembrance in the church is for those from the wider borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis.

Tombstone of Ffloyd Morgan – cruelly murdered by persons unknown in 1792. Over 50 years later a 90-year-old woman gave a deathbed confession, admitting her role in the killing.

Organ – built by Joseph Walker in 1859, it sits on the balcony above the foyer. Refurbished and upgraded several times it is still played on most Sundays.